Today we’ll tackle the intuitive comma in line editing. The one you really can only know is missing by reading your words out loud. I know, I know – reading out loud is a pain in the backside and embarrassing, especially if your kids have their friends over, but it is mandatory to find proper comma placement.

I’ll use a couple of examples from my book, Missing Emily: Croatian Life Letters, of how something might have made no sense if I had left the comma out.

Page One:

If I hadn’t used a comma:

“Always full of unwelcome surprises Dad changed these plans.”

Now, when you read it silently, you might not notice anything, but read it aloud and your speaking voice triggers your brain into questioning if Dad was the unwelcome surprise or if Dad delivered the unwelcome surprise? Change it to “Always full of unwelcome surprises, Dad changed these plans,” and it makes sense. It says what you (or I in this case) want it to say.

One more example from Missing Emily:

Page 87:

Without the comma:

“I peeked around the corner and saw them crouched down their mouths tucked into the tops of their pajamas giggling.”

How did they crouch down into their own mouths? Were their pajamas giggling? The correct way to (and the way I did) write it is “I peeked around the corner and saw them crouched down, their mouths tucked into the tops of their pajamas, giggling.”

Position two of the comma sutra is difficult because there are no hard and fast rules. The only way to decide on the appropriate location is to read the words out loud, or at the least deliberately, carefully, and slowly. Notice where you naturally take a pause while reading; put a comma there. If you find yourself needing to re-read a sentence to make sense of it, consider how a comma (or two) might help.